New Sonoma County Flower Market opens at The Barlow

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    WillieeArmellini
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    New Sonoma County Flower Market opens at The Barlow

    MEG MCCONAHEY
    THE PRESS DEMOCRAT | May 12, 2017, 1:57PM

    On a Wednesday morning in early May, Kellan MacKay rolls out of bed at 5 a.m., a full hour before sunrise. She confesses she’s not a morning person. But her love of flowers is big enough to overcome her biological inclination to sleep in. And this is an important day.

    It is the seasonal opener for the new Sonoma Flower Mart, a marketplace for a growing little niche of farmers in Sonoma County who cultivate flowers as a specialty crop.

    “I grabbed the cash box and got in the van with my coffee and drove here,” said the 32-year-old grower, part of the team at Oak Hill Farm in Glen Ellen,

    She is one of a small group of farmers, most of them young women in their 30es, who by 7 a.m. had unloaded their trucks and filled a warehouse behind Taylor Maid Cafe at The Barlow in Sebastopol with buckets of peonies, roses, cornflowers, digitalis, sweetpeas and columbine. The customers filter in early, a discriminating group of floral designers, wedding and event planners and others for whom fresh flowers are an essential stock-in-trade.

    The Mart was started by Nichole Skalski and Kathrin Green of The California Sister, a floral design and supply store at The Barlow marketplace, Sebastopol’s agri-hip neighborhood.

    Skalski started the market in a small way in 2013 when she launched her floral design business. Last year she teamed up with Green to open a retail shop and began buying flowers directly from farmers and reselling them out of the back of the shop.

    But this year they’re experimenting with a true farmer’s market model, where the farmers themselves set up stalls and sell directly to buyers. Most of their clients work in some manner in the professional floral or event trade and are buying at wholesale prices. But the general public may also come and shop for farm fresh flowers grown close to home at a slightly higher retail price.

    Market days are Wednesdays and Thursdays from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m., and will run through December, with farmers changing up their wares almost by the week depending on what is in bloom.

    This is not where you’ll find your common supermarket bunches.

    “We’ll have market flowers too, like zinnias, sunflowers and cosmos. But this is more high-end specialty cut flowers like peonies and clematis and foxglove. Things that don’t last as long and that fetch a higher price. It’s all super fresh,” said Hedda Brorstrom, who cultivates an acre of fresh flowers in Graton called Full Bloom Farm.

    Looking fresh as a milkmaid in short overalls, Brorstrom was up at 5 a.m., harvesting mock orange for designer Jaclyn Nesbitt of Santa Rosa, who was among the early bird shoppers with her baby Penelope in a carrier on her front.

    “The first year I moved up here I was driving to each farm individually picking up flowers. Seeing what they had on the farm is really important and it’s powerful to make that connection between the product you’re designing and where it comes from, and the people who go to such great lengths to grow it. But I would also go to the San Francisco Flower Mart. That is a lot of time in the car driving around. This is a huge victory for us,” Nesbitt said of the new market.

    Mother’s Day supply

    Also shopping the blooms on opening day earlier this month was Olivia Rivas, owner of Papillon Floral in Rohnert Park, who was happily buying for Mother’s Day and a wedding that weekend.

    “This is a dream of Nichole’s and of mine, really, and of every floral designer in the county — to come to one central place and order fresh product,” she said, her eyes honing in on a bucket of deep pink peonies she figured would be open just in time for Mother’s Day. “Here you get to know the growers and you have relationships with them. I have relationships with sellers in San Francisco too, but this is special because I know each one of these women and I’ve seen their farms personally. It’s just wonderful to be able to get to together and support each other.”

    Skalski figured a flower market was a natural for Sonoma County, where there are so many growers now specializing in flowers, both field-grown and in greenhouses. At the same time, there is a huge demand for fresh flowers in the Wine Country, the location of so many weddings and special events.

    Bringing farmers and shoppers together in a central location, she said, made sense.

    Floral designers and event planners traditionally have had to either drive to farms to buy direct or make the long, pre-dawn trek to the San Francisco Flower Mart in the South of Market area.

    “They were traveling to San Francisco for flowers when people are growing phenomenal flowers all over this county,” Green said.

    Currently, there are six farmers with dedicated stalls in the bi-weekly market, selling both cut flowers and greenery. But Skalski and Green also have a stall where they sell floral product from perhaps another half dozen farms, including Chalk Hill Clematis, Neve Brothers Growers & Wholesale, Neve Roses II and a peony grower in Penngrove.

    “We all know what traffic is like. It’s just brutal. We have to get up at 3:30 in the morning to go and get on the road to get to San Francisco,” Skalski said. “When you’re a wedding florist you have to get up before your longest working hours and you’re going into your job tired.”

    Flowers from Ecuador

    The San Francisco Flower Mart is much larger, with more than 60 vendors. Skalski noted however, that not all of the flowers in San Francisco are locally grown.

    “When you buy from San Francisco and other big flower markets, they fly in flowers from Ecuador. They don’t last very long. And they’re chemicaled up.”

    Farmers said the demand for locally grown flowers is part of the Slow Flowers movement, an offshoot of the Slow Food movement that believes in fresh produce, grown within 50 miles of home and consumed in season.

    That is reflected in the number of flower farms cropping up in Sonoma County. The cut flower industry grew by 8.6 percent between 2014 and 2015. That was on top of a 10.5 percent growth the year before, according to the most recent Sonoma County Crop Report. Between 2010 and 2015 the annual crop value almost doubled from $2.79 million to $4.5 million, outpacing in value nursery bedding plants, rye and oats and apples.

    Lennie Larkin, owner of B-Side Farm and Floral Design in Sebastopol, also serves as regional director for The Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers. She said membership in her organization has exploded to more than 1200. A recent class she taught at Santa Rosa Junior College on flower farming filled up immediately.

    Still, it’s hard to cobble out a living. Most growers wear multiple hats, working also as designers or event planners, as well as teaching. And most try to focus on unusual and hard-to-find flowers for a higher-end clientele as part of their business survival plans.

    “I’m trying to grow really interesting things that cost more money that not everyone has. This spring I’ve had a lot of columbine, a beautiful old garden flower. But not a lot of people grow it in the trade. Also Japanese anemones, a fall blooming flower. I just planted 200 feet of them. I think it’s wise to diversify.”

    Many of the farmers and designers drawn to the market are also members of the North Bay Flower Collective. The group is held together by a shared dedication to the Slow Flowers movement, and a shared esprit, based on collaboration over competition.

    Zoe Hitchner, the flower farmer at Front Porch Farm in Healdsburg, has brought sweet peas. Larkin said she hasn’t even planted hers yet.

    “Mine will be blooming throughout the summer,” she said. “I can’t think of anywhere in the country where someone half an hour from me can have such a vastly different microclimate. It extends the season and just gives us that automatic variety and sets us all apart in the market.”

    You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5204. On Twitter @megmcconahey.

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